A Critical Brand Reflection – Volkswagen Beetle / Bug / Type 1
The History of the Volkswagen Bug
In 1933 Adolf Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to create a people’s car (Volkswagen, German for People’s Car). The idea was to create a car that could seat 2 adults, 2 children and their luggage, as well as be able to cruise at 100 km/h, the idea eventually became the Volkswagen Type 1. (1) This vehicle was meant to be mainstay vehicle for the people of the Nazi Party of Germany, but due to World War 2 production was halted early. After the German’s defeat the factory building the vehicles was taken over by allied forces as reparations for the war, and the vehicle was sold as a family commuter car for the new recovered Europe. The Type 1 was exported to the US in the early 1950s, and then officially sold by Volkswagen Beetle in late 1955. (2) The vehicle sold very well in North America initially and became an icon of America’s counter culture in the 60s, all through an extremely economic compact car. The car was removed from sale by the late 1970s in North America, but not before becoming an extremely huge success worldwide (And currently the 4th best selling car nameplate of all time) (3), with the final model rolling off the production model in 2003 in Mexico.
Target Audience Analysis
The initial target audience for the Volkswagen Bug was families of four, a mother, father and two children. When the Bug arrived to North America, it was targeted towards younger baby boomer buyers, both single and those with small families. The car was cheap to run, cheap on gas and cheap to purchase, while also being visually appealing and unique. All these factors really benefitted the thinking of the younger baby boomer generation in the 1960s, as they wanted to have something different but still save money when they could.
The landscape of 1960s North America very heavily worked in-favour of the VW and its honest image. In the time of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war sentiment of many young Americans during the War in Vietnam, young baby boomers where directly opposed to the typical American way of life, leading to a massive counterculture movement. The VW Beetle was compact and simple in a time where cars where becoming larger and more expensive to run, and this stark difference in what most where used to at the time very much played the product in favour of young baby boomers as well as Volkswagen. Volkswagen’s success came from the fact that people where looking for something honest and cheap, in a time where car prices where rising and honesty in American values and products was at an all time low.
At the time of the Volkswagen Bug’s penetration in the US market, there wasn’t much competition from overseas. In the mid 1950s, most American cars where large, full of chrome and built for extravagance. All of these factors made the cars very expensive to purchase, as well as expensive to run and complicated to maintain. There wasn’t a lot of overseas competition at the time so the Beetle was considered an oddity, but this uniqueness gave it a advantage, as it answered needs that not many American companies knew where issues at the time. By the early to mid 1970s the Oil Crisis had completely changed the automotive landscape, and large gas guzzling full size family cars where swapped in favour in economical compact cars, which Volkswagen already had in the Beetle.
Volkswagen’s branding was one of the strongest contributors to its success because taking an unusually shaped, small, and imported car (created by Adolf Hitler, nonetheless) to an American audience is no small task. Volkswagen directly aimed its marketing towards the counter culture and the way its target audience appreciated honesty.
In using some of the most creative and innovative advertising of his time, Bill Bernbach and his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, created some very off the wall advertising that helped the Volkswagen Bug establish itself as an honest, reliable, but different car (4). Famous ads like “Think Small” which showed a picture of a shrunk VW Beetle didn’t boast so much about what it was capable of, but more what it didn’t have the consumer worry about. The “Lemon” ad also produced an image of the Beetle as something that could go wrong, like every car, but that Volkswagen’s inspection team has your back. The car’s cutesy look also helped launch it as a pop culture icon, with it’s feature in the Disney film “The Love Bug” launching an entire franchise based around the anthropomorphic car. (5)
The combination of right timing, strong advertising, and counter culture all helped the Volkswagen Beetle become one of the greatest success stories of all time and help solidify it as both a sales icon and a pop culture icon.
(2) Los Angeles Times, Jerry Hirsch Jan. 31st, 2014
(3) autoblog.com Jun. 2nd, 2018
(4) Medium, Mark Hamilton Mar. 20th, 2015